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Tesco row exposes the need for a local democratic process

I was astonished Bristol managed to top the news headlines on the day of the royal wedding, but sadly not for the stylishness of the headgear on display (although I’d pay good money to see riot helmets and hoodies designed by Philip Treacy).

Instead of street parties, Bristol had riots to protest against the opening of a Tesco Metro in Stokes Croft, an area where a great many residents had made it clear they didn’t want one. Weirdly, the rioters now claim not to have been rioting about Tesco at all, but about police brutality at the previous week’s riot about Tesco – a justification that’s gravely in danger of disappearing up its own backside.

I live at least a mile away from that bit of Bristol, so I won’t claim to know what its residents want. What’s clear is that a very vocal and social-media savvy group, with a powerful agenda that draws support from across the country are claiming to speak for the whole community. An oft quoted survey of 700 Stokes Croft residents stating 96% don’t want Tesco is purported to be the holy grail of evidence, or depending which side you’re on, a skewed consultation exercise carried out by a biased community group (they’re called No Tesco In Stokes Croft, so you can understand the vague suspicions). In reality it’s very hard to know what the truth is not least because people in favour of things don’t throw lumps of concrete at the police.

Such were the protests and legal challenges before this store opened, it may have been much more sensible for the council to have denied permission and for Tesco to have quietly sloped off. But the planning committee voted 4 to 3 in favour, which in itself reflects the division in the community. The principles of the Big Society and the advent of community organisers are designed to empower residents to make local decisions, and equally they potentially undermine local democracy. Difficult decisions have to be made and we need a democratic process for that decision making or rioting will become the only way to make our voices heard.

I think we need to be mindful about the erosion of local democracy. Local authorities have a duty of care to their whole population, not just the noisiest, nor the richest developers. Some issues are so contentious that a bit of sub-democracy wouldn’t go amiss and this is where a local referendum might work. The Stokes Croft Tesco is a very local issue with no apparent right or wrong answer; the very loud outside influencers need to be excluded and only the views of those who live in the area should be considered.

A straightforward yes/no ballot could be held using the electoral constituency, or an agreed neighbourhood boundary, including a vote each for local businesses. Buy in an electoral service provider and have the whole exercise overseen by an independent community group from another area. The high number of squats in the area will raise issues about those not currently registered on the electoral roll, but we overcame this in south Bristol resident elections by offering confidential voter registration. Expensive? How much do you think cleaning up after two riots, police brought in from neighbouring forces, days and days of lost trade for other retailers, and processing over 50 arrests is costing?

Whether this Tesco should reopen is a horribly divisive issue (you have to wonder why they would want to and who’d want to work there now?). Some seek resolution through mediation and collaboration, but the outcome will still be either a Tesco or not a Tesco. There is no compromise; you can’t have half a Tesco. Whatever the outcome some parts of the community will be pleased and some won’t. Let’s stop fannying about, find out what the majority of people living there really want, and then have all sides respect the outcome before the neighbourhood gets totally destroyed.

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Richard
Richard
12 years ago

Very fair and well-balanced article. It’s good that people are finally understanding that the radical minority does not represent the community just in virtue of being more vocal.

I do take issue with your conclusions however. A referendum would be a bad idea.

Firstly, it would set a precedent, and continual referenda would marginalize the role of representation in a representative democracy.

Secondly, there is something extremely distasteful about a community holding a referendum about whether to accept or reject a certain group of incomers. If the hipsters of Stokes Croft are allowed to reject Tesco today, you can bet that next week some “very conservative” village somewhere will vote to keep out Asians.

Jon B
Jon B
12 years ago

I believe this is the very type of rererendum that the ConDems are proposing in the Localism Bill.

Keren
Keren
12 years ago

Thank you for your comments. I understand your concern about continual referenda, but I struggle to think of another way to solve this particular issue. A large section of the community feel unrepresented by the outcome of the planning process and that planning regulations have allowed the council to ignore local opinion (possibly in fear of expensive legal challenges from Tesco).

The store reopened today and I hope community can reach a peaceful consensus.

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